Change to Existing Provision

It would take a brave administration to start dismantling the school lunch status quo, as it fully satisfied existing coalitional blocs such as students, lunch staff, school administrators and relevant industry. Implementing change would be a thankless, costly and unpopular task. However, the health and well-being of millions of children was at stake. New challenges bring new coalitions, however unlikely, as the First Lady discovered in relation to the US military. When Michelle Obama declared in 2010 that ‘the physical and emotional health of an entire generation and the economic health and security of our nation is at stake’22 she was building on a theme that dated back half a century. In 1945, the US military informed Congress that 40 % of those applying for the draft were being rejected due to their poor diet. Clearly, the nutritional welfare of the population was considered an issue of national security, and the National School Lunch Act was passed a year later.

The programme of free and subsidized school meals expanded and contracted through successive administrations. This was not necessarily on partisan grounds as President Nixon supported it, while the Carter administration reduced its funding and President Reagan imposed significant cuts on the programme. The 1980s was not a progressive era for food and nutrition, as Congress claimed that in the case of school lunches, tomato ketchup and pickle relish could count as vegetables. In addition, the Reagan administration permitted fast food chains to sell their wares in schools.23

In 2009, the Mission Readiness group of 130 retired senior military leaders presented a report to Congress. In it, they stated that weight problems were the leading medical reasons that recruits were rejected or discharged from military service. The ‘Too Fat to Fight’ report made headline news, as once again poor diet became an issue of national security, albeit in a different perspective from that in 1945.24 The Obamas found an unlikely ally in their war on food poverty. The Mission Readiness report supported the reauthorization of the 1966 Child Nutrition Act and vocally supported the Obama initiative to tackle the issue of childhood obesity and, specifically, the plan to shake up school lunches. The heft of former high-ranking military personnel gave the issue gravitas that undermined opposition efforts to dismiss the school lunch programmes as overpriced overintervention. Obesity was already costing the US army well over $1 billion year.

In 2010, First Lady Michelle Obama launched her ‘Let’s Move’ campaign to address the nation’s childhood obesity epidemic. In the early days of her initiative, the message was clear. As a matter of urgency, American children would have to start eating less, eating better and moving more. Her husband offered a substantial backbone to this with his 2010 HHFK bill, which received surprising levels of Congressional support at a time when the partisan atmosphere in Washington was particularly toxic. The clarity of language, in the bill’s title at least, almost dared anyone to challenge it. Introduced to the Senate by House Agricultural Committee Chair Blanche Lincoln, the bill received less funding than the president had called for. Lincoln told the press: ‘if the sky were the limit, I’d go for it. But the fact is we need to pass this bill.’25 The strategy worked, and it received a unanimous vote in the Senate. Predictably, support was less wholehearted in the House of Representatives, but the legislation introduced via the House Education and Labor Committee passed comfortably with 264 votes in favour and 157 against. On 13 December 2010, President Obama signed the HHFK bill into law.26 The content built on the 1966 Childhood Nutrition Act, set new nutritional standards for school meals (including school breakfast for those eligible), and in fiscal year 2011, the National School Lunch Program had a price tag of $10.1 billion, including $4.5 billion of new funding over ten years.27

The bill set out to change the existing provision not only by offering healthier school food to more children but also by making it more accessible by streamlining access. For example, the new arrangements required minimal paperwork from parents. This was significant, as previous experience had demonstrated that opt-in schemes tended to be fraught with challenges. Very low SES children often had chaotic home lives and so those in most need were also the least likely to have a permission slip signed. Another progressive aspect of the bill was that it dealt with the problem of school holidays. For many poorer children, school holidays meant a sudden drop off in their only regular meals. The school meal would now run through the year, in order to provide continuity of nutrition for those in most need.

The conversation about hunger, school lunches, food insecurity and obesity was already taking place before the Obamas became involved.28 What they brought to the table was the enormous cachet of a very popular First Lady on top of the weight of presidential decision-making. When the HHFKA was floated to mainstream support, it nonetheless received criticism not only from the obvious quarters of the president’s congressional opposition but also from some liberal Democrats and other advocates for the poor. There was apprehension about where the funding would come from and to what extent the plan was simply to take food from one needy plate to put it on another.29 In order to make the bill’s heavy price-tag acceptable to Congress, President Obama agreed that the lunch plan would be funded in part by future cuts to the food stamp scheme. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) was itself a source of endless controversy among politicians, with an annual cost to the taxpayer of approximately $74 billion. In his signing speech, President Obama said:

It’s also important to note that while this bill is fully paid for, it won’t add a dime to the deficit, some of the funding comes from rolling back a temporary increase in food stamp benefits—or SNAP as it’s now called—starting in the fall of 2013. I know a number of members of Congress have expressed concerns about this offset being included in the bill, and I’m committed to working with them to restore these funds in the future.30

The bill was complex and far-reaching. Any effort to bring about radical change in established patterns, in this case, children’s eating habits, was bound to be fraught with challenges and unforeseen consequences. The USDA now had clear authority to set new standards for food sold as lunches during the school day, including vending machines. The latter power was very significant as without it the impact of the menu changes would have been significantly reduced. Teenagers, in particular who were not keen on increasing their fruit and fibre intake, would simply have opted for vending machine fare if allowed. The HHFKA authorized additional funds to implement the new standards, and demonstrated a particularly progressive and environmentally conscious slant by providing resources for schools and communities to utilize local farms and gardens to provide fresh produce with minimal food miles.31 Resources would also be provided to increase the nutritional quality of the food provided by the US Department of Agriculture. This in turn was noteworthy, as in the past those who noticed or cared about such things realized that the quality of what was being put on the plates of millions of school children every day was questionable.32

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